The Arts and Humanities Research Council funded a Thinktank with the remit to engage with a variety of experts on the potential for making use of the Semantic Web in a museum’s context. I attended the launch meeting and the final meeting of the group. One suggestion I (supported by Paul Shabajee) made at the initial meeting was that the group should set up a blog rather than a mailing list as a mechanism for discussion and dissemination. We were therefore very pleased when we found the UK Museums and the Semantic Web blog. This blog provides a very valuable summary of the six meetings held with a variety of experts and the various discussions and shared resources.
Initially I suspect that there was a feeling that various Semantic Web experts would describe the role of Semantic Web standards and technologies such as RDF and OWL. In reality discussions on the difficulties and complexities of Semantic Web technologies were surfaced, and there were debates on its applicability, especially for the smaller museums, and the timeliness of the debate, especially in light of the wider interests in Web 2.0 in a cultural heritage (and wider) context.
My feeling is that museums should be experimenting with and debating the issues associated with use blogs and wikis, opening up access to their data and making use of popular services such as YouTube, Flickr and iTunes for maximising access to their resources, in parallel with discussion about legal issues, sustainability of services, etc. Whilst development programmes to provide services based on Semantic Web technologies should be left to the research community until the benefits of this approach have been proven and the technologies and standards have matured.
Ross Parry and Jon Pratty gave an update on the Semantic Web Thinktank at the Museums and The Web 2007 conference. Jacco van Ossenbruggen (CWI, Amsterdam) provided some fresh insight into the work of the Thinktank – and something that emerged from the discussions was the different areas of interests of the members of the Thinktank. The focus of my interests is in the provision of services to the end user community; others, however, were more interested in developments to the internal processes within museums, including enhancements to systems used to manage museum documentation. It then dawned on me that a Semantic Web approach may be relevant in updating the systems used to manage documentation of museums collections from an architecture based on early database principles to a Semantic Web environment. An advantage in this context is the widespread usage across the sector of the SPECTRUM standard, so there is not the competition of a variety of different approaches that we find in services targetted directly at end users of museum services.
The meeting at the Museums and the Web 2007 conference was therefore useful in developing my thinking in this area – and many thanks to Jacco for his contributions to the discussion. There will still, however, be a need to manage expectations and to develop the risk assessment and risk management approaches which will be needed in any new areas which are likely to require significant investment in resources.